4 ways to practice culturally responsive teaching

I keep a copy of Geneva Gay’s Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice near my desk because just seeing the spine from time to time reminds me of how important it is for all educators to know who their students are. I especially like these powerful words from it: “Culturally responsive teachers have unequivocal faith in the human dignity and intellectual capabilities of their students. They view learning as having intellectual, academic, personal, social, ethical, and political dimensions, all of which are developed in concert with one another.”

“Unequivocal faith in the human dignity and intellectual capabilities of their students.” Those are big words. Important words. Is Gay saying our students are valuable, every single last one? Is she saying the possibilities of what they can accomplish are infinite? Yes, yes she is. She is also saying that we, their teachers, have to be culturally responsive if we want to live up to those words. “Academic success,” she explains, “is a nonnegotiable goal for everyone and the responsibility of all participants in the teaching-learning process.”

Culturally responsive teachers subscribe to the basic tenets of the approach, defined by Understood as one that “connects students’ cultures, languages, and life experiences with what they learn in school. These connections help students access rigorous curriculum and develop higher-level academic skills.”

We all want to create these connections for kids, the kind that help them reach their potential and become lifelong learners, but how? Knowing what culturally responsive teaching is doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to know how to go about it. And chances are you don’t have the time for a few failed experiments before finding ways that work.

Here are four practices that helped me in my classroom. I hope they help you, too.

1. Build a positive classroom culture

Establishing a nurturing classroom culture is the first step to being culturally responsive. This begins in early childhood.

To build a culturally responsive classroom, then, we must get to know our students and their families.

If you’re a K–2 teacher, set the tone for school life by making sure your students feel included, represented, and safe. I offer some specific suggestions for how to go about this with our youngest learners in “10 ways to create community in your kindergarten classroom,” but many of them apply for all elementary grades and much older kids, too. For example, greeting students at the door is a practice even high-schoolers are likely to appreciate. So is establishing clear procedures, so that everyone knows what to do and when. Consistency goes a long way in building trust, and trust is critical for a strong classroom culture.

In “4 ways to strengthen the learning culture in your classroom,” my colleague Erin Beard also suggests empowering students by being a warm demander, a concept made popular by another big name in culturally responsive teaching, Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Erin encourages using stress- and trauma-sensitive practices as well.

2. Get to know your students and families

We all tend to open up and be more collaborative, whether that’s at work, at home, or even when running mundane errands, when we feel known and safe to be ourselves. An exchange as ordinary as paying for groceries tends to feel nicer, for example, when the checker makes eye contact and, for those brief moments it takes to scan your groceries, helps you feel seen in the world.

To build a culturally responsive classroom, then, we must get to know our students and their families. In “How to get to know your students,” Erin shares some additional suggestions suitable for all ages, like focusing on learning goals that feel relevant and personal to your students.

When I taught kindergarten and first grade, I really liked to start by sending out a survey asking questions related to my students’ likes, dislikes, culture, and family structure. I often turned to “101 inclusive get-to-know-you questions for students” to get ideas. The student inventories you’ll be able to build from surveys will help you be culturally responsive to kids’ needs because you’ll better understand who each student is.

Establishing a nurturing classroom culture is the first step to being culturally responsive.

Another fun way to encourage students to share themselves with you and their peers is to have kids bring a bag with artifacts that represent their family and culture to share with the class. Pictures to hang on a bulletin board work well, too.

For ideas on engaging with students and families who are learning English, see “6 strategies for partnering with families of English language learners.”

3. Provide opportunities for students to see themselves in the learning

Educators in many places around the globe are working to make their curricula more culturally responsive. If you’re required to use a curriculum that isn’t culturally responsive, there are still things you can do to adapt it.

Make sure your students are represented in the books you read, songs you play, practice sheets you use, and movies you show. For help diversifying your shelves, I love the articles “Kick-start Black History Month in your classroom (and keep it going all year),” “60 empowering books starring Latina mighty girls,” and Social Justice Books’ list of texts about LGBTQ+ characters. Diverse Book Finder is another fantastic resource.

Do some Google searches of your own and you’ll be sure to find excellent recommendations for songs and much more.

4. Set high expectations for all students

Remember Gay’s words about academic success? It’s “a nonnegotiable goal for everyone.”

Differentiation and scaffolding can help you push kids to reach their potential because they support students in closing opportunity gaps and allow you to keep high expectations.

Differentiation is when you tailor the content you’re teaching or the process you use for teaching it to meet the needs of each student. An example of this, especially in a culturally responsive classroom, is to allow students to pick a book to read themselves, either from a selection of diverse options you provide or even on your next class trip to the library.

Scaffolding is when you provide temporary support to a student to help them gain the understanding they need before moving on to more complex topics. It usually involves breaking content down into more digestible units, and it allows you to provide access to material that’s on grade level (or even beyond, if that is what a student needs). Edutopia provides a few examples of what scaffolding can look like in “6 scaffolding strategies to use with your students.”

Goal setting is another valuable practice that can keep expectations high while offering students a clear path for hitting learning targets. For more on how to do that in your classroom, I recommend my posts “Goal-setting foundations for pre-K–2 teachers” and “2 types of student goal setting that empower early learners” as well as my colleague Chase Nordengren’s new book, Step into Student Goal Setting: A Path to Growth, Motivation, and Agency.

Other resources to support your practice

Being culturally responsive means being in tune with your students’ culture and needs. It means believing your students can—and will—meet your high expectations.

For more ideas on how to incorporate culturally responsive practices into your classroom, I recommend “Getting started with culturally responsive teaching,” “How to use culturally responsive teaching in the classroom,”  and “Culturally responsive teaching: A guide to evidence-based practices for teaching all students equitably.”


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